Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane
There is a counterintuitive logic underlying all this feisty rhetoric. The opening phrase in bars 1 and 2 is scalewise and thus melodic in character; the next phrase is full of octave leaps and goes out of its way to not be melodic, with its repeated Cs. It is essentially a harmonization and nothing more. In fact, it looks strangely like an ending cadence—a kind of anti-cadence that ends on the dominant. A basic principle of harmony—one could say the basic principle of harmony for several centuries now—is that the dominant leads to the tonic. By strongly differentiating the shapes of these two phrases, though, Beethoven has cast the tonic and dominant as adversaries. They are like magnets that repel instead of attract each other.
This gesture is a prelude to Beethoven's later genius. His early- and middle-period innovations are largely expressive—the stormy introduction of the "Pathetique" Sonata, the mysterious opening movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata, or the great funereal slow movement of the "Eroica" Symphony are obvious examples among many. Beethoven was expanding the expressive potential of music, pushing it out of the 18th century court and giving the audience a richer, more intense emotional experience. The innovation in Op. 95, by contrast, is less overtly felt but more deeply subversive. Beethoven is calling into question a deep, founding principle of tonality. The music is deconstructive, not destructive—he is not doing away with the rules of tonality or turning them outright upside down; he is asking us to look differently at something that we always see.
Violence is a driving theme of this quartet. Beethoven willfully thwarts the development of his motifs, striking them down at once. But when he shuts down ideas like this, there is logic involved. The gesture in bars 3–5 is no mere stupid blow; as forceful as it is, it is a rejoinder to the initial motif. It forces Beethoven to essentially begin the piece again, as he does here at bar 6:
The theme redresses itself in the warm key of G-flat major. In the opening, it was heard in stripped down, unharmonized octaves, which gave it a raw, brutal quality. This time, it is heard only in the cello, less threateningly, and is harmonized sweetly by the other strings above. It welcomes us away from the battle, promising reconciliation and a brand new start with its ascent upwards by a half step. This, coupled with the shift to a major mode, sends us a message: "Here is that theme for you, new and improved, easier on the ears and less jarring!"
We cannot properly speak of an actual modulation to G-flat major—there has been no voice leading between bars 5 and 6. This shift to another tonal center without preparation for a surprise effect had long been a favorite device of Beethoven's, for example, at the beginning of a development section. Here though, the stark juxtaposition between F minor and G-flat major has a specific meaning. It tells us right away what this piece will be about: opposition between poles, followed by resolution, followed by more opposition.
The resolution is always provisional and temporary. The sunny mood at bar 6 is over almost as soon as it begins. The listener feels G-flat major as a new tonic because Beethoven gave us the opening theme again. This is subterfuge, though. In bar 10, one more time, the dominant attacks again, with a pathos and subtlety that was absent in its first attack on the tonic seconds earlier; this mood change correlates to the more lyrical quality of theme's statement at bar 6. We see that G-flat major was ill-fated as a tonic: The dominant usurps that fleeting status through voice-leading at bars 8 and 9 and recasts G-flat major in a mere Neapolitan role—as a flatted second chord which must lead to the dominant. This is a completely legitimate move, well within accepted practice already for a good century, but it is downright sneaky here because G-flat had appeared to be the new tonal center seconds earlier.
The Neapolitan chord—built from the root of the flatted second degree of the scale that constitutes a given tonality; in this case, the G-flat of F Minor—is a more chromatic alternative for the subdominant in a progression that will continue to the cadential dominant and then resolve. But Beethoven withholds resolution here—the dominant is allowed to revel in its victory at bar 10 for the next several bars. So, for the second time, we have the strange feeling of anti-cadence: we have arrived at the dominant as if it were a kind of tonic, and we can go no further. The Neapolitan progression has been used partially and its original function is now eradicated. What we have now is a similar struggle between two tonalities like the opening of the piece, but one that sounds particularly sinister because they are a tritone apart. We see this simply if we harmonize those tonalities into simple triads and play them back-to-back a few times:
The tritone relationship is one of equidistance within the chromatic scale: If I travel upwards or downwards from either triad in stepwise motion, I will arrive at the other triad in the same amount of steps. This directionless spatial relationship has a corollary effect on our ears: It is the sound of utter instability. Because they are equidistant from each other, neither triad wins over our ears as a tonic. In the early 20th century, as the tonal hierarchy gives way and we approach complete chromatic saturation—in the music of Richard Strauss and in Arnold Schoenberg's earlier works, for example—this kind of tritone relationship is normal. Or rather: It becomes a normative trope for everything that is not normal, and often denotes something sinister or scary. It becomes a cliché in film soundtracks, heard as the enemy's army marches toward us. Beethoven anticipates the sound of 20th-century instability, but he achieves that by thwarting and subverting conventional principals of harmony that had already existed—principals that he had reflected on, at this later point, for quite some time.